Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Michael Lewis

Quote of the Day

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August 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Michael Lewis

When B.F. Skinner discovered as a young man that he would never write the great American novel, he felt a despair that he claimed nearly drove him into psychotherapy. The legendary psychologist George Miller claimed that he gave up his literary ambition for psychology because he had nothing to write about. Who knows what mixed feelings William James experienced when he read his brother Henry’s first novel? “It would be interesting to ask how many psychologists come up short next to great writers who happen to be near them,” one prominent American psychologist has said. “It may be the fundamental driver.”

Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project

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January 9, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Ian Malcolm rule

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Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park

A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Last week, at the inaugural town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters, one brave questioner managed to cut through the noise and press Mark Zuckerberg on the one issue that really matters: what’s the deal with that gray shirt he always wears? Zuckerberg replied:

I really want to clear my life to make it so I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except best how to serve this community…I’m in this really lucky position where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life…So even though it kind of sounds silly—that that’s my reason for wearing a gray t-shirt every day—it also is true.

There’s a surprising amount to unpack here, starting with the fact, as Allison P. Davis of New York Magazine points out, that it’s considerably easier for a young white male to always wear the same clothes than a woman in the same situation. It’s also worth noting that wearing the exact same shirt each day turns simplicity into a kind of ostentation: there are ways of minimizing the amount of time you spend thinking about your wardrobe without calling attention to it so insistently.

Of course, Zuckerberg is only the latest in a long line of high-achieving nerds who insist, rightly or wrongly, that they have more important things to think about than what they’re going to wear. There’s more than an echo here of the dozens of black Issey Miyake turtlenecks that were stacked in Steve Jobs’s closet, and in the article linked above, Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times also notes that Zuckerberg sounds a little like Obama, who told Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” Even Christopher Nolan gets into the act, as we learn in the recent New York Times Magazine profile by Gideon Lewis-Kraus:

Nolan’s own look accords with his strict regimen of optimal resource allocation and flexibility: He long ago decided it was a waste of energy to choose anew what to wear each day, and the clubbable but muted uniform on which he settled splits the difference between the demands of an executive suite and a tundra. The ensemble is smart with a hint of frowzy, a dark, narrow-lapeled jacket over a blue dress shirt with a lightly fraying collar, plus durable black trousers over scuffed, sensible shoes.

Mark Zuckerberg

If you were to draw a family tree between all these monochromatic Vulcans, you’d find that, consciously or not, they’re all echoing their common patron saint, Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, who says:

In any case, I wear only two colors, black and gray…These colors are appropriate for any occasion…and they go well together, should I mistakenly put on a pair of gray socks with my black trousers…I find it liberating. I believe my life has value, and I don’t want to waste it thinking about clothing.

As Malcolm speaks, Crichton writes, “Ellie was staring at him, her mouth open”—apparently stunned into silence, as all women would be, at this display of superhuman rationality. And while it’s easy to make fun of it, I’m basically one of those guys. I eat the same breakfast and lunch every day; my daily uniform of polo shirt, jeans, and New Balance sneakers rarely, if ever, changes; and I’ve had the same haircut for the last eighteen years. If pressed, I’d probably offer a rationale more or less identical to the ones given above. As a writer, I’m called upon to solve a series of agonizingly specific problems each time I sit down at my desk, so the less headspace I devote to everything else, the better.

Which is all well and good. But it’s also easy to confuse the externals with their underlying intention. The world, or at least the Bay Area, is full of young guys with the Zuckerberg look, but it doesn’t matter how little time you spend getting dressed if you aren’t mindfully reallocating the time you save, or extending the principle beyond the closet. The most eloquent defense of minimizing extraneous thinking was mounted by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who writes:

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle—they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

Whitehead isn’t talking about his shirts here; he’s talking about the Arabic number system, a form of “good notation” that frees the mind to think about more complicated problems. Which only reminds us that the shirts you wear won’t make you more effective if you aren’t being equally thoughtful about the decisions that really count. Otherwise, they’re only an excuse for laziness or indifference, which is just as contagious as efficiency. And it often comes to us as a wolf in nerd’s clothing.

A novelist’s view of the campaign

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A few weeks ago, there was a lot of talk about whether polls for the presidential race were slanted toward the Democratic side. Nate Silver has done a better job of demolishing these claims than I ever could, although it’s worth pointing out that, on its face, the allegation never made sense: if the media were really lining up behind Obama, it’s unclear what they’d have to gain by artificially boosting his numbers, which would only encourage complacency and decrease turnout. (That said, if the polls had been running in the other direction, I’m sure we’d see similar accusations of bias from the left, as we did in 2004.) It’s also important to note that while members of the media, as individuals, may skew more liberal than otherwise—for the same reasons that such people tend to be disproportionately drawn to careers in journalism and the arts—their professional and collective decisions arise from a different set of impulses. The men and women who cover the news, like the rest of us, tend to be motivated by a complicated combination of ambition, pragmatism, time constraints, and the professional conservatism that comes from working in an industry that is still trying to figure out its own business model.

This just means that reporters, especially on the political side, essentially tell stories for a living. More than most kinds of reporting, covering a campaign is something like writing a novel: while most journalism focuses on the recent past or, at most, the immediate present, political reporting is inevitably about one particular date in the future. It’s about constructing hypothetical situations, mapping out possible developments, and marshaling evidence that can inherently be interpreted in multiple ways—which is almost a form of highly specialized speculative fiction. But apart from its predictive tendencies, political journalism is also inclined to look for dramatic narratives. A campaign in which one candidate is consistently ahead in crucial polls over the course of many months is the equivalent of a novel in which the stakes never change. As a result, the media is generally predisposed to depict the race as being closer than it actually is. This is why countless news stories over the past few months have referred to the presidential race as “virtually tied,” even when swing states told a different story. A close race means increased voter engagement, more clicks, and a greater appearance of balance. And emphasizing one number over another is a storytelling choice.

Of course, the campaigns are telling stories too, and both sides of this year’s election have their share of novelistic sensibilities. Stuart Stevens, Romney’s campaign manager, has written a novel and television scripts and served as a consultant for The Ides of March, and as I’ve mentioned before, Obama himself once seriously considered becoming a novelist. And where it counts, Obama hasn’t changed: when Michael Lewis writes, in his excellent Vanity Fair profile, of “the president sitting down and trying to persuade himself to think or feel a certain way first,” the temperament he’s describing is fundamentally a novelistic one. I suspect, for instance, that Obama approached Wednesday’s debate as a writer might approach a transitional chapter in a novel. A campaign, like any extended narrative, can’t consist entirely of high points: you need to carefully select the moments when you bring out your maximum firepower. I have a hunch that Obama looked at the situation and concluded, correctly, that Romney was a stronger debater; that the topic of the debate, domestic policy, was his own weakest selling point; and that the media narrative was predisposed to give Romney a victory to maintain the suspense. Not surprisingly, he decided to play it safe, much as a writer might decide to conserve his powder for more important scenes to come.

The trouble is that a campaign, like a novel, tends to be judged by its audience moment to moment, and unlike readers, we can’t move on right away to the next chapter. Viewed objectively, this wasn’t a very interesting debate—Romney’s Big Bird quip was the only memorable line of the night—but for twenty-four hours, it was all anyone wanted to talk about, which is like reviewing a novel based only on a single scene. And for the Romney campaign, clearly, this wasn’t a transitional chapter, but something like the second turning point in a screenplay, in which the setbacks of the previous section are clarified and transcended in advance of the crucial third act. In that respect, Romney did a very good job—although I can’t help but be skeptical of the storytelling instincts of a man whose favorite novel is Battlefield Earth. At every moment, we’re watching two different stories being written in parallel, in real time, and nobody knows what the ending will be. But in politics, as in fiction, it comes down to the long game. As David Mamet says, “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around again in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.” Or, in this case, on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Written by nevalalee

October 5, 2012 at 10:08 am

Bill James on why he writes

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Every form of strength is also a form of weakness….Pretty girls tend to become insufferable because, being pretty, their faults are too much tolerated. Possessions entrap men, and wealth paralyzes them. I learned to write because I am one of those people who somehow cannot manage the common communication of smiles and gestures, but must use words to get across things that other people would never need to say.

Bill James, quoted by Michael Lewis in Moneyball

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September 30, 2011 at 7:58 am

Moneyball and the dusty middle innings

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Moneyball is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and the second great film in four months starring Brad Pitt. (A few more like this, and I’ll even forgive him for Benjamin Button.) It’s the first film in a while in which Pitt’s star power has been on full, dazzling display, and it’s especially welcome in a sports movie that is designed to frustrate, or at least challenge, our expectations. This is an absorbing, often exhilarating film, but not for the usual reasons: despite Billy Beane’s shrewdness and vision, and the lasting impact he’s had on baseball, he’s never won a championship, and probably never will, now that his insights have spread far and wide. Moneyball, contrary to the subtitle of its source material, isn’t about winning an unfair game, but about surviving it—which makes it much more poignant than Michael Lewis’s book, which was unable to witness the aftermath of its own revolution.

And one of the film’s great virtues is that it treats survival on one’s own terms as something noble. Watching it, I was reminded of Roger Angell’s praise of Bull Durham, which the A.V. Club quoted a few months ago:

It assumes you’re going to stay with the game, even in its dreariest, dusty middle innings, when the handful of folks in the stands are slumped down on their spines waiting for something to happen, even a base on balls.

At its best, Moneyball—which loves a base on balls—is an unsentimental look at those dusty middle innings, and what it really takes to say in the game. The A’s may never win another title against a big-market team, but they played competitively long after being dismissed. And one of the film’s unspoken messages is that Beane was happier scheming and cobbling together a team in Oakland than he would have been as part of the Red Sox machine, even if it cost him a World Series. As Bennett Miller, director of Moneyball, recently said to the New York Times: “He would have died in Boston. It wouldn’t have been his show. He likes to be the guerrilla in the mountains in combat fatigues.”

One of the reasons why the book and movie of Moneyball have such wide appeal—even to those, like me, who have close to no interest in sports—is that it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to one’s own life. In my own case, it reminds me, inevitably, of being a writer. Deciding to become a novelist is something like entering professional sports: you start with dreams of a multimillion-dollar contract, but in the end, you feel lucky just to get picked in the draft. And while you may get occasional bursts of attention and praise, for the most part, it’s about playing in every game, practicing in solitude, and making small, crucial choices that nobody will notice. If writing a great novel can be compared to a baseball feat, it isn’t DiMaggio’s hitting streak, but Ted Williams’s .406 year, in which every swing counted, day after unglamorous day.

And the first, necessary duty is simply to survive. A writer doesn’t have the benefit of sabermetrics, but he or she inevitably develops a comparable suite of tricks, both practical and artistic, to keep playing. These tricks often boil down to boring formulas or rules of thumb: structure stories in three acts, get into scenes late and out of them early, cut every draft by at least 10%. And the process of internalizing these tricks—and I’m stretching the metaphor here, but whatever—is something like increasing one’s on-base percentage: it’s nothing fancy, but over time, it adds up to runs, which allow players and teams to endure. In the end, no matter what the other rewards might be, a writer, like a baseball player, is incredibly lucky to be in the show. But if you want to keep playing a grown man’s game, as Moneyball understands, luck by itself isn’t enough.

Written by nevalalee

September 26, 2011 at 9:21 am

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